The Downside of Up

When positive = negative  -  graphic by Nili Bresler
When positive = negative - graphic by Nili Bresler

Remember when positivity was a good thing? That was way back in the old days – before 2020.

Pollyanna here. The girl who always sees the good side of things. I’m the only one I know who sings ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ without the irony. I actually bounce around the apartment singing to myself and my captive audience, the poor cat. The playlist in my head goes from “Don’t worry, be happy” to “All You Need is Love” to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” to “Walking on Sunshine”…

I was often teased as a kid for being too cheerful in the morning. This coming from my own Dad, who always seemed to wake up in a good mood as far as I can remember.  Even though my life has definitely not been a bowl of cherries, I remain cheery, inexplicably upbeat. Don’t know why. I never have to make an effort to smile. There always seems to be something good going on someplace. It’s not something I do consciously. It just is that way with me. My eyes are encircled with countless smile lines and I’m proud of them. Botox?? Sounds crazy to me. Who would want to erase the signs that one has lived a full and happy life?

It’s no surprise that when I started teaching business communications around 15 years ago, I latched on to the concept of positive language, including constructive phrases and positive language techniques in all my courses. I teach my students to smile when they speak, along with many other positive language tips. This stuff is not merely theoretical for me: In my years in business I have found these positive techniques actually work in negotiations. And isn’t everything in life a negotiation? I assign TED Talks on positive mindset and the psychology of happiness as required listening for my students…

But now I discover that all my positivity may be oppressing others. For several years now, I’ve been hearing about the concept of toxic positivity. In 2015 I read “The happiness conspiracy: against optimism and the cult of positive thinking”[1]. I’ve seen articles about the subject in the business media, as well as health and psychology publications.

2020: Enter COVID 19, and even the word ‘positivity’ has taken on a sinister meaning. Testing positive for a dread disease is the last thing any of us want. The daily positivity statistics tracking the pandemic are the farthest thing from happy that one could imagine. And yet I cannot help myself but look on the bright side. I gleefully tune in to Gov. Cuomo’s briefings, enjoying his PowerPoints full of homespun wisdom and encouraging quotes. I revel at the cleverness of his brother’s one-liners, “We are being pancaked by the pandemic,” said Chris Cuomo the other day. And I get a warm glow whenever I see Dr. Fauci with his straight talk and no-nonsense advice.

While the WHO and Johns Hopkins bombard us with terrifying data about positivity rates, I choose to think of positive in its more traditional meaning. I focus on the positive aspects of the pandemic: People paying better attention to their own health and spending more time with the people they care about most.  I’m pleased about some of the happier side-effects of the pandemic for our earth: clearer skies, cleaner seas, fewer car crashes, rising ecological awareness among many people.

It’s not that I’ve been unaffected by this pandemic. I have not been hugged since March 10th. Yes, I’m keeping track… I’ve been keeping my distance from people I love, voluntarily isolating myself, for 5 months now. And yet I sing. I am thankful to have a safe place to shelter, a cute, furry housemate to keep me company and plenty of healthy food to eat.  I am thankful that I can work online, since keeping busy is for me, the key to staying happy. Pollyanna’s at it again.

Meanwhile, the concept of toxic positivity has popped up again, a bit more urgently now, with so many people in pain, suffering both psychological and economic distress.

“Toxic positivity is the idea that we should focus only on positive emotions and the positive aspects of life,” according to clinical social worker, Heather Monroe. “There can be long-term effects of toxic positivity including encouraging a person to remain silent about their struggles,” Monroe said. [2]

Is my cheery demeanor oppressing others? Am I unwittingly exhorting others to suppress their emotions and avoid expressing their true feelings? Sounds like this is the case. But I truly do not know how to solve this. What do I do with the knowledge that my own chipper personality may be toxic?  I do believe people can change – at any age. But do I want to? Would I be a better friend if I were more low-key, less bouncy, less upbeat? Possibly.  Is this likely to happen? No way. I’m too busy making lemonade out of these sour lemons, the crop of 2020.

[1] https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/02/happiness-conspiracy-against-optimism-and-cult-positive-thinking

[2] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-is-toxic-positivity-coronavirus_l_5f04bca0c5b67a80bbff7cd3

About the Author
Nili Bresler is a trainer and business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, she was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. In her spare time, she manages communications for the non-profit, NATAN International Humanitarian Aid. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives happily in Ramat Gan.
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